Scene 1. Prologue: Lullaby in the storm. Andante
Scene 2: A village fete. Tempo giusto
Scene 3: At the mill – Pas de deux. Moderato
Scene 4. Epilogue: Lullaby in the land of eternity. L'istesso tempo
Some of his models are surprising. One immediately thinks of the so-called neoclassical works, such as the Octet or the Symphony in C; or perhaps of the transcriptions of eighteenth-century music in Pulcinella. But the ‘classical’ part of the term is misleading, since Stravinsky could use almost any style as a basis, and often seems to have made his choice with the specific intention of contradicting expectation. In fact his first genuinely neoclassical work (in the sense of conscious style modelling) was probably the little one-act opera Mavra (1921–2), which is openly based on the idioms of nineteenth-century Russian music, specifically those of Glinka and Tchaikovsky. At the time, Stravinsky was trying to escape from the stereotype of the Russian nationalists (including his own teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov) by moving closer to the two great Russian composers whose music owed most to Western influences. But it so happened in any case that Tchaikovsky was in the air for him in 1921, because Serge Diaghilev was planning the first Western production of The Sleeping Beauty and had perhaps already asked him to supply orchestrations of a couple of pieces that had been cut from the full score he had in his possession. Not content with fulfilling this mundane task, Stravinsky felt impelled to go into battle on behalf of Tchaikovsky, whose music—as he knew very well—was deeply unfashionable in Parisian artistic circles. ‘Tchaikovsky’s music’, he insisted in an open letter to The Times of 18 October 1921, ‘is often more profoundly Russian than music which has long since been awarded the facile label of Muscovite picturesqueness.’ He praised Tchaikovsky’s simplicity, his melodic gift and the ‘great creative power evinced by The Sleeping Beauty’. And in another open letter to the Paris paper Le Figaro the following May he added that, compared with the Russian nationalists, ‘I feel much closer to a tradition that might be traced back to Glinka, Dargomïzhsky and Tchaikovsky …’
The influence of these composers is very apparent in Mavra, which had its premiere on the day the Paris letter appeared. But the active enthusiasm seems to have been temporary, and it was only revived some six years later, when Ida Rubinstein commissioned him, at the suggestion of Diaghilev’s former closest collaborator, the painter Alexander Benois, to compose a ballet for her company’s autumn 1928 season, based on music by Tchaikovsky. Benois, who had worked closely with Stravinsky on Petrushka and The Nightingale, knew about his affinity with Tchaikovsky; but he also knew that Stravinsky was allergic to the obvious or the predictable, and he was careful to rule out the well-known Tchaikovsky—the ballet music or the symphonies—and to argue for the much less familiar piano music as a suitable source for an integrated new work. Benois even went so far as to suggest possible Tchaikovsky pieces. But he seems to have had no specific ideas for the subject of the ballet, and it was Stravinsky who, perhaps remembering The Nightingale, came up with another Hans Andersen story, The Ice Maiden, a tale of fairy malice with obvious Tchaikovskian resonances. The music was composed at the Stravinsky family’s rented chalet at Echarvines, near the Lac d’Annecy, during the summer of 1928, and first staged by the Ballets Ida Rubinstein in Paris that November, with designs by Benois, and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska.
Exactly what Benois expected Stravinsky to do with the Tchaikovsky originals is far from clear, but he probably expected something along the lines of Pulcinella—that is essentially a set of free orchestrations with added harmonic and rhythmic spice. Indeed, the evidence is that the composer himself set out with something of the sort in mind, since he only started work in early July on a forty-five-minute score, three-quarters of which was supposed to be delivered by the start of September. But the music seems to have taken over and dictated its own terms, with the result that Stravinsky soon found himself entangled in a complex recreative process, and having to compose day and night to get the work completed in time for the first performance, never mind the early deadline. The result is a complex and highly original masterpiece which constantly fragments and reassembles the material as if Tchaikovsky had been miraculously transformed into a modernist composer of the 1920s, or even, dare one suggest, a postmodernist composer of the 1970s, fascinated by the individual gestures of romantic music and the idea of manipulating our response to them. At any given instant, The Fairy’s Kiss nearly always sounds like Tchaikovsky; but it is a Tchaikovsky that seems to have been smashed up by an earthquake, then dug up and reassembled by a team of archaeologists with only a rather hazy notion of the music’s original language. Some parts, it’s true, are put together ‘better’ than others. But as a whole the outcome is wonderfully disconcerting, and brilliantly challenges our perhaps too comfortable way of listening to late romantic music. It needs adding that not all the material is borrowed; Stravinsky had a genius for invention in an assumed manner which, perversely, he would then proceed to Stravinsky-ize, and there is plenty of good ‘Tchaikovsky’ in The Fairy’s Kiss that nobody has ever managed to identify.
Just as the music took a conventional way of writing as its starting point, so the plot involved a return to the old-fashioned story ballet which Stravinsky had supposedly abandoned after The Firebird eighteen years before. In some sense this might also look like a neoclassical kind of reference. But in practice the scenario, though it has a curiously cool, dispassionate tone, behaves rather more ‘correctly’ as narrative than the music does as discourse. With sharper characterization here and there, and a touch more emotional violence, it might almost have been set by Tchaikovsky himself. But the distancing is obviously deliberate; a story that is not quite a story to go with a Tchaikovsky score that is not quite a Tchaikovsky score.
A woman carrying her baby son is battling through a storm (appropriately to music based on Tchaikovsky’s song Lullaby in the Storm Op 54 No 10); fairy spirits pursue her, separate her from him and lead him away. The Ice Fairy herself appears, takes the child tenderly in her arms and (to a reprise of the opening music) plants a kiss on his brow. A group of peasants pass and, finding the abandoned child, search in vain for his mother.
In the second scene we are at a village festival, several years later. Here the music is dominated by two of Tchaikovsky’s better-known piano pieces: the Humoresque Op 10 No 2 (much reorganized) and Rêverie du soir Op 19 No 1. Among the peasant dancers are the Young Man and his fiancée. The musicians play Tchaikovsky’s Natha-Waltz Op 51 No 4 and waltzing versions of the previous pieces. Then the crowd disperses, the fiancée leaves and the Young Man is again left alone. The Fairy appears disguised as a gipsy and reads his palm. As she dances (to an agitated version of Tchaikovsky’s song Both painful and sweet Op 6 No 3), he falls increasingly under her spell. She talks to him about his love and promises him great happiness, then leads him back to his fiancée.
The third scene is set at the village mill (with music from Tchaikovsky’s Scherzo humoristique Op 19 No 2). The Young Man, led by the Fairy, comes upon his fiancée playing and dancing with her friends (chiefly to the Feuillet d’album Op 19 No 3). They perform a Pas de deux: first the piano Nocturne Op 19 No 4, then a version of the warmly sentimental song Serenade Op 63 No 6. At the end, the fiancée goes to put on her wedding veil; but the bride who returns is again the Fairy in disguise. The Young Man makes love to her and, by the time she reveals herself, is again completely under her spell. She leads him away to the Eternal Dwellings (final scene), where, to the music of the first scene, she once more bestows on him her icy kiss.
from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2010